Next Sunday, 21 February, is World Whale Day. The origin of World Whale Day can be traced back to 1980, when it was declared in Maui, Hawaii as part of the annual Maui Whale Festival. During our visit to Hawaii in 2014 whales were in short supply (it was the wrong time of year), but over the years we’ve been lucky enough to see them in the waters off Iceland, Madagascar, New Zealand and Alaska.
However our best encounters were around Newfoundland, Canada, in 2017, and to celebrate World Whale Day I thought I’d revisit some of the blog posts I wrote at the time. We spent around four weeks on The Island, as the locals call it, and without doubt the whales were the highlight of the trip. I wrote a blog of our Newfoundland journey at the time, but the following focuses on our magical, memorable meetings with some of the many humpbacks that spend the summer months around its shores.
Having a whale of a time
4 July 2017
Today’s been a woolly hat day, courtesy of a bitter wind howling in from the high Arctic. It’s appropriate therefore that we should have seen our first iceberg this afternoon as we drove the coast road towards the bizarrely named township of Heart’s Content, which, as I’m sure you know, is just down the road from its sister settlements of Heart’s Desire and Heart’s Delight!
The cold has been made more bearable by the warm afterglow of yesterday evening’s brilliant whale-watching trip. Whale-watching is always a bit of a lottery, and sometimes you lose. But yesterday we hit the jackpot.
St John’s sits in a sheltered harbour, connected to the sea by a narrow inlet unimaginatively referred to as “the narrows.” Passing through the narrows we were thrilled to spot the towering, tell-tale spouts of whales announcing their presence to the world. Hey guys, they seemed to say, we’re over here, why don’t you pop along and say hello. We took them at their word and pretty soon we were amongst them, surrounded by a pod of five or six humpbacks.
Best of all was when they arched their backs to make a deep dive. This is the manoeuvre that causes the whale’s huge, fluked tail to lift clear of the water, a clown’s battered, white-gloved hand waving goodbye to his adoring fans before the animal plunges into the murky depths in search of lunch.
I struggle to explain why I find whale-watching such an emotional experience. Partly, maybe, it has something to do with the fairy tale notion of a gentle giant. But also, mixed in with this, is a sense of shame at mankind’s persecution of this majestic, harmless creature in the pursuit of a quick profit. Hunted to the brink of extinction humpbacks are, thankfully, now on the way back. They are awe inspiring animals, and it’s a joy to see them. Yesterday was a memorable day; yesterday was a great day.
In the thick of it: the whales of Witless Bay
27 July 2017
Our evening whale-watching trip out of the harbour at Bay Bulls starts with a visit to Gull Island. Unsurprisingly, it’s generously endowed with gulls and other seabirds, including the ever-popular puffin. But birdwatching isn’t the purpose of our journey today, and we quickly move on to Witless Bay, reputedly the best place in Newfoundland to get up close and personal with humpback whales. For once the hype is fully justified, and within a few minutes we find ourselves surrounded by a group of between 15 and 20 humpbacks, all gorging themselves on fish (capelin) that congregate here to breed.
The skipper kills the engine and we sit still in the water, mesmerised by the whales circling all around us. The humpbacks patrol the bay, breaking the surface as they swim sedately along, then diving suddenly in pursuit of their quarry, then surfacing again with a loud “blow” of exhaled air and water-droplets.
A couple of times we see them lunge-feeding, exploding from the deep with huge gaping mouths that have, in this single manoeuvre, made short work of thousands of tiny fish. Occasionally we spot one spy-hopping, raising his head above the water’s surface to watch what we’re up to. They approach within metres of the boat, so close was can see barnacles growing on their skin. Sometimes they simply lie at the surface like floating logs, as if winded by the sheer volume of fish they’ve just swallowed.
Today could have been a pretty miserable day, but it turns out to be one of the best we’ve had in Newfoundland. Yet this is a strange place, and Newfies march to the beat of a different drum. After the whale watching is over we retire to a nearby restaurant that specialises in fish. The waitress welcomes us warmly, says we can sit anywhere we like and have anything on the menu … except fish. Unsurprisingly perhaps in a part of Canada where Basil Fawlty sets standards that some locals find unattainable, it appears that the fish restaurant has completely run out of fish.
Relaxed, unafraid, at peace in their world: the whales of Witless Bay
31 July 2017
Our last day on The Island. We decide to end the adventure in style by taking another whale-watching trip to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, hardly daring to believe it can be as successful as the first.
This time we know the ropes, arriving at the dock and joining the line early. This means we can be amongst the first to board, which allows us to choose a prime position. We head for the top deck and station ourselves at the pointy (bow) end, which offers good views both left and right of the boat. The weather is warm and sunny, the sea swell rolling our boat gently as we ease our way out of the harbour and past the low cliffs lining its entrance.
Again we call at Gull Island on the way, enjoying the sight of the puffins and smiling at the excitement of our fellow travellers when they spot their first “sea parrot”. There are thousands of puffins sitting on the rocks watching the world go by, while a few others venture out on to the sea and swim past our boat.
We quickly leave the clownish birds behind us and head towards the spouts that tell us the humpbacks are still here. Soon we are amongst them, whales to the left, whales to the right, whales in front and whales behind, while seabirds wheel overhead, seeking out the same fish that have drawn the humpbacks to this spot.
There must be two dozen whales at least, and some of them come so close we can almost touch them, can smell their fishy breath. A few swim alongside us, keeping pace with the boat as if out for a stroll with a group of friends. Others cross casually in front of us at the surface of the water, relaxed, unafraid, at peace in their world.
But then, somewhere deep within them, instinct kicks in. With an arch of their backs they dive deep, seeking out capelin beyond counting, fish needed in huge quantities to accumulate the thick layers of fat that will sustain them in the waters off Dominica, until they return to these cold northern shores next year. And as they dive they wave their tails, bidding farewell to their spellbound acolytes.
It is a truly extraordinary hour, one of the best wildlife watching experiences of our lives. In several respects The Island hasn’t quite lived up to our expectations, but the whale watching has surpassed anything we had imagined. This, above all else, is the memory of Newfoundland that will stay with us.
Reflections on the fate of the whale, UK, August 2017
One of the unexpected delights of Newfoundland is its thriving folk music tradition. Much of this has a Celtic flavour, reflecting the strong connection between The Island and Ireland. Interestingly many of the locals have a slight Irish lilt to their accents, though in some cases it’s much more pronounced than this and you could believe you were in Dublin or Cork or Kilkenny or wherever.
We picked up a few CDs during the trip, but couldn’t play them until we got home. Our car, a Chevy Cruze, was great to drive with lots of high tech features, but despite this (or perhaps because of it) there was no CD player! The first CD I tried when we got home was by a well-known Newfoundland folk band, The Irish Descendants. The lyrics of one of the songs, the Last of the Great Whales, brought a lump to the throat, not least because of all brilliant humpback encounters we enjoyed during our trip. The song is written by Andy Barnes, from Milton Keynes in the UK, and goes as follows:
My soul has been torn from me and I am bleeding My heart it has been rent and I am crying All the beauty around me fades and I am screaming I am the last of the great whales and I am dying Last night I heard the cry of my last companion The roar of the harpoon gun and then I was alone I thought of the days gone by when we were thousands But I know that I soon must die the last leviathan This morning the sun did rise Crimson in the sky The ice was the colour of blood and the winds they did sigh I rose for to take a breath it was my last one From a gun came the roar of death and now I am done Oh now that we are all gone there's no more hunting The big fellow is no more it's no use lamenting What race will be next in line? All for the slaughter The elephant or the cod or your sons and daughters My soul has been torn from me and I am bleeding My heart it has been rent and I am crying All the beauty around me fades and I am screaming I am the last of the great whales and I am dying
Poignant, n’est pas? I can’t trace on YouTube a recording of the Irish Descendants singing this song, but here’s a link to an excellent version performed by Celtic Crossroads. Though the whale has been saved for now, for me the lyrics capture with devastating clarity the nature and scale of the wrong that has been done to these gentle creatures throughout the ages. Let’s hope that Andy Barnes will be proved incorrect in his gloomy prophecy.